trenton bridge
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From the Night Factory

48. And I Thought of the Bridges

The massive red brick building was a machine shop, long ago gutted of machines and tools. That night it was being used as a gallery and a stage for performance art. At the hour of our visit the crowd was generally young and grungy, dotted with a few out-of-place night-clubbers in their disco gowns. The art displayed interested me less than the 52,000 square foot interior. A second floor ran the entire length of the building like an inside balcony. On that second floor, I observed old equipment still in place, large flywheels suspended from the ceiling to be spun by belts in an age before electricity. Access was not allowed.

Trenton’s annual Art All Night is a twenty-four hour event that this year ran from three o’clock in the afternoon on Saturday, the 20th June, until three o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday, nonstop. Ms Keogh, my more significant other, very much wanted to attend, and we were there at three o’clock in the rainy morning. The event was held at the old Roebling Wire Works. John Augustus Roebling was the inventor and manufacturer of the steel wire rope, the suspension cable used in suspension bridges, most famously in his own design and construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.

My friend Skip came to mind, how we argued in letters about which was more beautiful, the Brooklyn Bridge or his favorite, the Golden Gate Bridge. The Golden Gate Bridge is also constructed of Roebling cable. But bridges are like music, you can have no favorite except for the duration of a mood, and sometimes you forget a favorite until it arrives to remind you and put you in that mood. It was in that moment the subject for this essay came to mind.

The small town of Morrisville, Pennsylvania is braced to Trenton, New Jersey by four bridges across the Delaware River. This part of the river is known as the Falls of Delaware. Here the river is between 900 and 1,000 feet across and for a stretch of about two miles it is shallow and filled with rocks. It was a barrier to the ships of the Dutch West India Company. They established a trading post on the Pennsylvania side in 1624, what would become Morrisville. This shallow portion of the river was a barrier to John Fitch, inventor of the steamboat, who, steaming up from Philadelphia, could bring his craft no further in 1790. The water flows rapidly between Morrisville and Trenton. It is the fall line, where the Piedmont Plateau meets the Coastal Plain and the river drops eight feet. It made for a good place to build water-powered mills. It is as far as the Atlantic tide brings seawater. It is a good place to build bridges.

Another reason this was a good place to build bridges is because Morrisville and Trenton are perched on a direct line between Philadelphia and New York. It became the first highway for the colonists, tracing a still older Native American trail. It was just below the Falls the first ferry across the Delaware was established. Eventually that ferry was bought by Paddy Colvin and Colvin’s Ferry would become the original name of Morrisville.

Paddy was there to help General George Washington in the early days of December 1776. Washington’s army was in retreat from New York with Major General Charles Cornwallis in pursuit. Before Cornwallis reached the river, Colvin had seen to it that all available boats were on the Pennsylvania side of the river, out of reach. Later that same month, Christmas Day, Washington would cross back and take by surprise the Hessians, a mercenary component of the British army garrisoned in Trenton. This victory was the pivotal moment in the Revolutionary War changing the balance of the war in favor of the Colonies.

rail bridge

Morrisville-Trenton Railroad Bridge

The first of the four bridges one reaches swimming upriver is the Morrisville-Trenton Railroad Bridge. By all appearances, it was built by the Romans, a long array of ancient stone arches. However, the Romans never made it to this continent and the bridge was built in 1903. It took a couple of years longer to build than planned because of several floods the engineers had not predicted. It was not the first railroad bridge to cross the river here, but when the previous railroad bridge was to be abandoned, it was a chance to build in stone, which is more solid and requires less maintenance than steel. The bridge is a handsome brute built for the ages like a mountain.

trenton morrison

The Trenton-Morrisville Toll Bridge

The second bridge is a few hundred feet away, green girders attached to piers of granite-faced masonry. It is the ugliest of the four bridges. Utilitarian, the concrete deck plopped into place, this is the Trenton–Morrisville Toll Bridge. It is forever visibly corroding and deteriorating, and not in the charming way of Japanese aesthetics, wabi-sabi. This unadorned bridge represents the pragmatic plainness of the Eisenhower era in which it was built, forgettable relicts of a Philistine age best remembered in black & white. It is the only toll bridge of the four. When I began commuting across this bridge, there was a dime toll each way. The toll is now one-way, westbound into Pennsylvania, and if you don’t have an E-Z Pass, it is a dollar. For that reason, plenty of people take the next bridge up when traveling west.

toll bridge

Lower Trenton Toll Supported Bridge  (Ms. Keogh in foreground)

That next bridge, another few hundred feet further upriver, was the Lower Trenton Toll Supported Bridge, built in 1806, the first bridge built across the Delaware River. Using a technology favored for covered bridges, the Burr arch truss, Theodore Burr designed this unique bridge of laminated wood arches from which were suspended chain link to hold the deck. And it was covered! The bridge was acquired in 1834 by the railroad to complete an uninterrupted train line from Philadelphia to New York, but because the bridge was made of wood, at that point in the journey the rail cars had to be hauled across by horses. Reinforced a year later, locomotives could share the bridge with horse-drawn wagons.

Wooden bridges burn and at least one fire had been caused by a locomotive. In 1875, an iron truss bridge was built for the railroad adjacent to the wooden bridge on extended piers. In 1876, the wooden bridge was converted to iron truss. In 1892, the piers were extended again to carry more rails. In 1898, iron was replaced with steel in the spans holding the railroad side of the bridge. In 1918, the railroad sold the bridge to Pennsylvania and New Jersey and a year later it became the Lower Free Bridge. However, the present Warren truss bridge, built in 1928, has been known by locals as the “Trenton Makes” bridge since 1935, when in large glowing letters the words TRENTON MAKES – THE WORLD TAKES were attached to south side. It is there for all the passers-by to see as they drive across the Trenton–Morrisville Toll Bridge or are riding the rails on the Morrisville-Trenton Railroad Bridge. The iconic sign reminds the older locals of a time when the city was famous for industry and manufacturing. For the passers-by, this city, not popular with tourists, is a familiar milestone on their trips to greater cities.

Calhoun Street
Calhoun Street Bridge

Now we arrive at my favorite bridge, the last of the four uniting Morrisville with Trenton. It is several thousand feet farther upriver. This is the Calhoun Street Bridge, a Pratt pin-connected truss bridge, a delicate tracery painted verdigris-like green. So fine are the struts, chords, and bracing you can forget to see the bridge and admire the sky, the rocks in the river, the capital city downriver with the gold leaf cupola of the statehouse, or the thickly green trees upriver crowding the riverbanks. Crossing on motorcycle, the river is visible through deck’s grating beneath your feet. Then, if you notice the bridge itself, it invites study. The eyes will find doily-like accoutrements in corners, decorative plaquettes in the webbing, and finials atop the ends of the truss.

calhoun detail

Instead of flat, fat, cast iron columns, the truss is constructed with the famous Phoenix column, four sections joined to form a cylinder, riveted along a lip that runs the length of the seams.

Phoenix column

What is most unfortunate is the disruption to the bridge’s aesthetics by the addition of steel uprights to the inclined end posts when approaching from the Morrisville side. This later addition doesn’t seem to have any structural purpose and is only there to hold a battery of signs declaring clearance, weight limits, speed limits, and not to ride your bike or a horse across. Because of it, you are likely to fail to observe the plaque that crowns the entry to the bridge. It reads, “THE PHOENIX BRIDGE CO. PHOENIXVILLE. PA.”


The Phoenix Bridge Company was organized in 1864 as a division of the Phoenix Iron Works, which was founded in 1790. The Phoenix Bridge Company, which is now defunct, built almost 1,400 bridges and as far away as China. This particularly fine example connecting Morrisville to Trenton was built in 1884. It was not the first bridge at this location.

The City Bridge was a covered bridge with a toll, built in 1861. It was destroyed by a careless cigar smoker in 1884. The new Calhoun Street Bridge was built on the old piers and abutments of the City Bridge in 60 days by 83 Phoenix bridge workmen. The toll was discontinued in 1928. A trolley line used to cross the bridge until 1940. The bridge also bore the honor of the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental road in the United States, built in 1913 and stretching 3,389 miles from Times Square in Manhattan to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. The Calhoun Street Bridge and the earlier mentioned Morrisville-Trenton Railroad Bridge are both on the National Register of Historic Places, as well they should be.

I have crossed three of these four bridges a thousand times. Not the Morrisville-Trenton Railroad Bridge. I believe I have crossed that bridge only once and that was because I slept through the Trenton stop and continued on towards Philadelphia before the conductor roused me. There will be numerous crossings yet before I depart for the United Kingdom in less than two months’ time. Then they will be memories and rare will be the visits. At least I can say I didn’t take them for granted.

Mr Bentzman will continue to report here regularly about the events and concerns of his life. If you've any comments or suggestions,
he would be pleased to hear from you. 

Selected Suburban Soliloquies, the best of Mr Bentzman's earlier series of Snakeskin essays, is available as a book or as an ebook, from Amazon and elsewhere.